The membrane between the city and beyond.
CALGARY, Canada- I now wish I went into the heart of Calgary. This is one of those cities where it is not clear if I will ever return. I’ve been on the road for nearly twenty years and this was the first time I had a reason to come here … so there is a reasonable chance that I may not find myself coming back for twenty more.
Why would anyone come to Calgary?
I could probably ask this question of most of the places that visit to write about.
I had a choice of an almost infamously horrendous Travelodge for $65 (some of the worst reviews I’ve ever seen. I almost stayed there for the novelty) or a nice Comfort Inn for $85. Comfort Inns are the nicest of the budget class accommodation chains in North America. The order: Comfort Inn, Super 8, Travelodge separated by $10 pricing tiers.
In this instance, I had a choice of all three. They formed this golden triangle of globalization, one butting up against another. I went for the best. Why? Comfort Inns provide breakfasts which consist of eggs, sausage, and yogurt, where the other two just give you slimy processed muffins. The Comfort Inn would save me the $15 I would otherwise need to spend on breakfast, and the extra $5 was worth it for the water slide.
I’m traveling by car, and the gravitational hold that the highway has on a person traveling in this way is often inescapable. Leaving the bosom of the highway takes concerted effort, it takes a plan, it takes a reason. It’s just too easy to do what you’re suppose to: pull 100 meters off the side of the road and hole up in the big box hotels that where purpose-built just for you.
Traveling in America is like being sucked through a straw. Points A and B are clear and defined but the area in between is just one quick slurp.
My goal in Canada is to clog the straw, get stuck in the middle for a while, disrupt the flow and see what’s there.
The liminal zone
There is another reason why I so easily choose to stay in a highway hotel on the outer edge of Calgary: I often find the outskirts of cities fascinating.
I’m drawn to life in the liminal zone — the seldom trod membrane between the built-up core of a city and the suburbs beyond. It is an area that’s not quite city, not quite suburbia, and not quite industrial wasteland. It’s the no-man’s-lands near airports and highway junctions where the entities that fall through the cracks of a society tend to land: sketchy bars, strip joints, mis-labeled massage parlors… places pushed outside the bounds of the city but kept at bay by the suburbs. These are the lands of truck stops, warehouses, factories, strip malls, and low cost housing that is all wrapped up in elevated highways and decorated with chain link fences. It’s ugly and mundane and uninviting, but underneath this unappealing exterior is often something hidden.
The transitional period or phase of a rite of passage, during which the participant lacks social status or rank, remains anonymous, shows obedience and humility, and follows prescribed forms of conduct, dress, etc.
The experience of the liminal zone can be hit and miss. They can be interesting, brimming over with stories, or … not.
In Asia, you can find things that you never imagined — new cities being built from scratch, industrial edifices that you could never have dreamed existed, pools of green sludge, ancient villages surrounded by thickets of high-rises, pop-up red light districts, defacto towns for migrant workers … they’re hidden pockets of cultures in transition.
In North America, the amusements of the liminal zone are often a little more subdued. Where I was in Calgary there was a clutch of hotels, a couple sports bars, a McDonald’s, and a truck stop with an erotic massage parlor directly across the street. I stood between the latter two for a few minutes and finished my cup of coffee. I watched the sun bed down in a blanket of orangeish-gray haze as a jet landed in the airport a few blocks away. I decided to go back to the hotel and watch profane cartoons with my wife and kids.
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